A court hearing in Bend earlier this month is bringing long overdue attention to some of the legal issues surrounding accidents and bike lanes. The Deschutes County proceeding focused on the death last November of a 31-year-old cyclist who was “hit and killed in an intersection by a FedEx truck,” according to a report in The Oregonian.
Prosecutors described bike lanes as the center of the case. “This is cultural,” the newspaper quotes the county prosecutor saying. “Many people just don’t think of them as lanes.”
According to the newspaper, the cyclist sped down a hill and through an intersection, colliding with the side of a FedEx semi-truck as it was making a right-turn from NW Wall Street onto NW Olney Avenue in Bend. The rider “was also traveling north on Wall, in a bike lane alongside the travel lane. (He) intended to go through the intersection and not turn right onto Olney Avenue,” according to The Oregonian.
The immediate purpose of the recent hearing was to determine whether or not the truck driver should be cited in the fatal incident. Officers at the scene opted not to do so, but prosecutors issued a citation several months later. During the recent hearing the judge threw this out, ruling that the cyclist “was not exercising ‘due care’ as a user of the road.” This ruling, however, flies in the face of both common sense and Oregon law. The relevant section of Oregon’s legal code, Section 811.415 explicitly states that bicycles traveling in a bike lane have the right to pass cars and trucks traveling in the motorized vehicle lanes on the right. Accompanying that is a requirement that drivers making right turns do so with due caution. Legally-speaking the bike has the right of way in the bike lane – including the extension of that lane through an intersection – so it is the car or truck driver’s responsibility to ensure that they are turning safely.
The Bend judge’s ruling is at odds with existing legislation and court decisions here in Oregon, and there is every reason to think it will be overturned on appeal. In addition to the ORS 811.415 issued noted above, the judge demonstrated also reached the surprising – and legally unsupportable – conclusion that bike lanes do not extend through intersections. In addition to defying common sense this ruling, if it stands, would negate the entire purpose of bike lanes and tell every cyclist that they are on their own whenever passing through an intersection.
Thankfully, the county court’s ruling is not likely to be the final word on the issue, and it is important to note that Oregon’s legal code offers other remedies for the family of the cyclist should they decide to pursue a civil action. ORS 811.050 (“Failure to yield to rider on bicycle lane”) is a statute that deserves particular attention in this respect.
In the longer term, however, this is an instance in which the cycling community may need to lobby the state Department of Transportation for a formal reinterpretation of existing laws. It may also be necessary for the legislature to modify Oregon’s legal code to clarify several aspects of bike-car relationships that ought to have been obvious. As an Oregon lawyer with an interest in helping and advocating for the cycling community I hope this tragedy will spur others to action, even as the legal system reassesses the local judge’s ruling.
ORS 811.065: Unsafe passing of person operating a bicycle